Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921

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Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921

The combination of Ulster loyalist resistance to Home Rule and the outbreak of the First World War brought the gun back into Irish politics, shattered John Redmond's hopes of Anglo-Irish reconciliation, and began the final collapse of British administration in Ireland. Any early enthusiasm for supporting Britain in the war had evaporated by the time that plans were made for a rising to take place at Easter 1916.

The Easter Rising

The Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the leadership of the Irish Citizen Army secretly plotted to bring about a national revolution backed by German aid. There was hopeless failure of communication between Ireland, the United States, and Germany, and a planned landing of arms off the Kerry coast ended in the scuttling of the German boat and the capture of Sir Roger Casement, the republican emissary to Germany. It was decided to proceed with the rising a day later than planned, that is, on Easter Monday, with virtually no expectation of any military success.

The Rising was almost entirely confined to Dublin, supported by only around 2,000 Irish Volunteers and handicapped by the decision to occupy various public buildings around the city center. The rebellion, which amounted to little more than a blood protest, accorded with nineteenth-century notions of a romantic revolution and was totally unsuited to resisting a modern army with heavy artillery and armaments. The resistance heroically held out for five days and seriously embarrassed the British administration while it was almost entirely preoccupied with European events at the height of the First World War. It was the British government's decision to execute in stages most of the Irish leaders and to intern a considerable number of the participants that altered popular attitudes to the rebellion. Many internees told of being barracked by the populace on their way to British prisons and then being feted by big crowds on their release some months later.

The power of the events of the Rising and its aftermath therefore led to a resurgence of militant nationalism. Nonetheless, Easter 1916 had some negative consequences for Irish nationalism. Much of the leadership was either dead or temporarily removed from the scene, and many criticized the secrecy, lack of planning, and naiveté of the tactics used. The almost mystical quality of the actual proclamation of the Republic would make it very difficult to win acceptance in nationalist ranks for any necessary compromise with the British in the future.

The Rising was only one of the elements that undermined the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the British administration in 1917 and 1918. The abortive British attempts to achieve an immediate settlement, the talk of partition and of the extension of conscription to Ireland, the sundry acts of pin-pricking coercion—all these served to further the interests of a more advanced form of nationalism which was institutionalized by the new Sinn Féin Party and the resurgent Irish Volunteers. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's crusade on behalf of self-determination and the rights of small nations enabled Irish nationalism to recover from the pro-German associations of 1916 and placed the British administration on the defensive. This culminated in the Sinn Féin triumph in the 1918 general election, which saw the virtual obliteration of the IPP outside the northeast.

The War of Independence

In accordance with Arthur Griffith's ideas Sinn Féin refused to take its seats at Westminster and set up an alternative parliament, Dáil Éireann, and counterstate. To begin with, faith was put in an appeal for international recognition to the Paris Peace Conference, and there was some hope among moderates that passive-resistance methods might achieve independence. On the same day, 21 January 1919, that the Dáil met publicly for the first time, two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were killed by a column of Volunteers at Soloheadbeg near Tipperary town. This coincidence of political and military action is usually seen as the start of the War of Independence. Though relationships between the political and military sides of the movement were fraught, much of the Irish success in the next two years was dependent on the impression that a mandate had been given for physical-force measures to achieve a republic.

The appeal to the Paris Peace Conference produced nothing, and the political leader Eamon de Valera's eighteen-month stay in the United States beginning in June 1919 raised considerable funds but little political support beyond sympathy resolutions in state and federal legislatures. In Ireland some success was gained in the establishment of republican courts and in local-government institutions, but the counterstate was unable to perform with any credibility owing to British opposition and lack of financial resources. The Dáil was quick to authorize the boycott of the RIC that began in local areas in 1917 and 1918.

During 1919 military actions consisted of isolated attacks on RIC men and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) detectives. By the autumn of that year RIC stations were being evacuated in large parts of the rural south and west. This began the process by which the mechanisms of British rule collapsed. Beginning in 1920 the Volunteers, now the Irish Republican Army (IRA), were emboldened to attempt many attacks on barracks. In an improvised way guerrilla warfare was applied and implemented. The success of Michael Collins's intelligence network of spies, double agents, and informers was a complete turnaround from the British infiltration of nationalist movements in the nineteenth century.

By the time in July 1920 that the British government made the first wide-ranging review of Irish policy since the end of the First World War, the British writ no longer ran in most parts of the Twenty-Six Counties. The offer of separate parliaments and devolved Home Rule to Dublin and Belfast in the Government of Ireland Bill, which eventually passed in Parliament in December 1920, had no relevance to the South. From the late summer of 1920 the British government followed a coercive policy based on the militarization of the police. The notorious Black and Tans were formed from unemployed ex-servicemen recruited from the end of 1919. The Auxiliaries were another force, consisting of ex-officers sent over from July 1920. Both forces acted without an effective disciplinary code and became infamous for their association with a wave of unauthorized reprisals, burnings, and shootings in the second half of 1920. The whole character of the war then dramatically intensified with a series of defining events: the seventy-four–day hunger strike and death of Terence MacSwiney, lord mayor of Cork; the execution of the eighteen-year-old Kevin Barry on All Saints' Day; the killings of Bloody Sunday, 21 November, in Dublin; the IRA triumph against a convoy of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael a week later; and the burning of much of Cork city center on the night of 11 December by the Auxiliaries.

The conflict continued to escalate until the truce of 11 July 1921, when a military stalemate was admitted on both sides. On the Irish side it was recognized that lack of resources, chiefly arms and ammunition, prevented any outright victory, while the British realized the acute unpopularity, both at home and abroad, of their methods and the extreme difficulties of countering guerrilla warfare in the long term.

The British decision to negotiate in July 1921 with men previously dismissed as gunmen and to offer dominion status in the Anglo-Irish Treaty seems to represent a triumph for the IRA. However, the aim of an all-Ireland republic had not been achieved, and therein lies the main reason for the Civil War that followed. The continuation of the constitutional and partition issues plagued Irish politics and Anglo-Irish relations for the rest of the century.

SEE ALSO Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; Civil War; Collins, Michael; Connolly, James; Cumann na mBan; de Valera, Eamon; Gonne, Maud; Great War; Griffith, Arthur; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Markievicz, Countess Constance; Pearse, Patrick; Plunkett, Sir Horace Curzon; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Redmond, John; Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922; Women in Nationalist and Unionist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century; Primary Documents: "What Is Our Programme?" (22 January 1916); Proclamation of the Irish Republic (24 April 1916); "Easter 1916" (1916); Declaration of Irish Independence (21 January 1919); Government of Ireland Act (23 December 1920); The Anglo-Irish Treaty (6 December 1921); Proclamation Issued by IRA Leaders at the Beginning of the Civil War (29 June 1922)


Fitzpatrick, David. Politics and Irish Life, 1913–21: Provincial Experience of War and Revolution. 1977.

Hart, Peter. The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916–1923. 1998.

Hopkinson, Michael. The Irish War of Independence. 2002.

Townshend, Charles. The British Campaign in Ireland, 1919–1921. 1975.

Michael A. Hopkinson

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Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921

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